Natan’s 2018-19 Grants Part 2: What We’re Learning about Philanthropy and Collective Giving

By Felicia Herman

Last week, we announced Natan’s 15th annual grant slate, representing $922,000 in new grants and loans to 39 Jewish and Israeli social entrepreneurs, nonprofit startups and post-startups, social businesses, and networks of grassroots initiatives.

We reflected in last week’s post about some of the lessons we’re learning about the fields we are supporting and the evolution of the innovation sector in general. This week, we want to offer some takeaways about our work as a giving circle that engages emerging philanthropists in thoughtful, strategic philanthropy.

Giving circles are awesome. (You’ve heard this one before, but it’s true.). Natan is a giving circle – a group of members who pool their resources, sit on one of our multiple grant committees (each of which has a different focus area) and decide together what we’re going to support. We’re such passionate believers in the power of giving circles that we launched and spun out Amplifier to help other people start and sustain their own giving circles (you can apply for its national giving circle incubator right now). Giving circles are an answer to so many of the questions that animate contemporary Jewish communal life: how do we find new and inspiring ways to engage people about the key challenges and opportunities facing Israel and Jewish communities around the world, and how do we inspire people to invest in addressing those challenges?

In this grant cycle, 72 NYC-based professionals in their 20s-50s learned about and invested in Jewish and Israeli projects they likely wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. Across all of our committees, we reviewed 250 grant applications and spent more than 70 hours in grant committee meetings, events and educational sessions. Giving circles are “sticky” – over half of our current members have been at Natan 8 years or more – and they’re also adaptable. Six of this year’s members were brand new, bringing their own views and ideas to the group’s conversations.

Giving circles are powerful sites for viewpoint diversity. One of our board members said recently: “our tag line should be ‘change my mind.’” That ethos seems particularly rare and special these days. At Natan, people debate each other openly in an atmosphere of respect, care, and curiosity. Each grant committee makes its decisions by consensus – members coalesce around decisions everyone can live with, not necessarily the ones that any individual would have made on their own. People assert their own views and they compromise and defer to others’.

One of our favorite moments of the year came in a committee allocations meeting when it became clear that only one member, who was new to Natan, opposed an applicant that the rest of the committee strongly favored. This member went on record at the end of the meeting to say: “I oppose this decision and don’t want to support this organization. But I’ll go with it anyway – because I respect the group and I respect the process.” That kind of flexible, open-minded and open-hearted sentiment seems all too rare these days, and we really treasure it.

Partnerships are powerful. This year Natan piloted a new partnership with the Leichtag Foundation on a shared area of interest: strengthening the city of Jerusalem. Natan had made some small grants in the city for a couple of years, and Leichtag is one of its most influential and creative grantmakers. We created a true partnership with both sides benefiting: Leichtag brought some operational and grant matching funds and access to its incredible network of city leaders, field experts, grassroots activists, and other Jerusalem-focused funders. Natan brought a group of new and younger funders to learn about Leichtag’s philanthropic approach in the city, as well as a new source of funds for organizations in the Jerusalem Model, Leichtag’s diverse, growing network of 200+ Jerusalem activists, entrepreneurs, and leaders. We learned so much from our funding in Jerusalem this year that we’re planning to write a separate piece on it. Suffice to say that, as any thoughtful investor in Israel knows, there’s mind-blowing work going on in Israel that doesn’t fit any of the usual narratives.

We’re also proud to continue our partnership with the ROI Community, a global network of Jewish innovators sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. This year, Natan will be making $145,000 in grants across several committees to projects led by ROIers: Lazos (a network of young Latin American Jewish leaders), Jewish Queer Youth (supporting LGBTQ Orthodox Jewish teens and their families in NYC), Jewish Kids Groups (re-imagining and re-inventing Jewish afterschool), the Israel Story podcast, Kulna Yerushalayim (bringing Jews and Arabs together over backgammon in Jerusalem), 0202 (translating Hebrew, Arabic and English media in Jerusalem into the other languages) and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

Ethical philanthropy requires trust and transparencyon both sides. We do our best to create a true sense of partnership with our grantees. This isn’t easy and we don’t always succeed, but we try. Each of our members and grantees brings their own assets to the table – financial, intellectual, and social – and we need each other to fulfill our collective vision(s). We try to flatten power dynamics, listening to what grantees really want and need, talking openly about their successes and their struggles, and doing so respectfully and with humility. We also try to be as transparent as we can about our own thinking and decision-making. This helps organizations, especially newer ones, to realize that funders have their own strategic priorities and constraints. We never have as much money as we want to have, we always have to make tough decisions, and at Natan, we have to harmonize many different perspectives and agendas among our decision-makers, some of whom have been doing this for a long time, and some of whom are totally new to Jewish giving.

We also know that as supporters of innovative new and young organizations, we need our grants to be as flexible and as lengthy in duration as we can. We try to renew grants for at least three years and hopefully more – 65% of this year’s grants are grant renewals. We balance our goal of renewing grants with a commitment to risk-taking, always saving room in the portfolio for new ideas and organizations. We also strive to make as many grants for general operating support as possible, especially to new/young organizations, to enable them to innovate and pivot as necessary. This year 59% of our grants are for general operating support, and most of the rest are for projects developed jointly between the grantees and our team. If our funding is at all restricted, we make sure it’s for leverageable work that the grantee really wants to be doing.

And finally: giving circles that fund innovation are a powerful onramp to philanthropic engagement of all kinds. It’s usually the case that, when we talk to new people about joining Natan, they haven’t heard of anything we support or don’t know much about the Jewish philanthropic or organizational world writ large. Maybe they went to Hebrew School and hated it; they might belong to a synagogue but rarely go; they may have attended a Federation event but don’t know what Federation does. Few know how to bring their personal values, concerns and ideas to life through proactive, intentional giving.

We need more onramps – lots of onramps, of all kinds – to bring more people into the Jewish philanthropic conversation.

Giving circles are an excellent onramp because they meet many of the interests of contemporary givers, including the perennial human need for community and connection. A focus on innovation – especially as it manifests in startups – is helpful because it speaks a language that contemporary givers want to hear; allows them to marry their “non-Jewish” interests (technology, arts and culture, environmentalism, etc) into Jewish causes; empowers smaller donors by demonstrating tangible impact on newer, smaller initiatives; and exposes people to some of the most exciting, inspiring people and initiatives in Jewish communities around the world.

BUT! Too many people imagine that there’s a zero-sum game happening here – that people fund “innovation” instead of “infrastructure,” that they reject the core needs of Jewish communities in favor of the “new” and “sexy.” Our experiences at Natan teach us that it’s not an either/or – through the onramp of collectively funding innovation, new people come into the Jewish communal conversation in a serious way for the first time, get exposed to a wide range of issues and organizations they’ve never know about, and they begin to feel empowered to explore their own values and bring them to life through giving. They realize that innovation can happen anywhere – and that the best communal organizations, large and small, legacy and new, are striving to be innovative. Our longtime members go onto other boards, give to other organizations, and some have even wound up running major Jewish organizations. “Innovation” and “infrastructure” aren’t opposites.

At Natan, we feel privileged to be able to bring new people into the Jewish communal conversation all the time. Empowering people to use their giving to create the change they want to see in the world, in a fun and smart community of peers, creates passionate, lifetime investors in the Jewish and Israeli future.

Felicia Herman is Executive Director of The Natan Fund.